Sheryl WuDunn: Half the sky “The paramount moral challenge of this century is gender inequality” Sheryl WuDunn proclaims in her TED talk d “Halfthe sky”. Though gender inequality is widely accepted to be a major source of concern in the world today, this statement is nevertheless provocative – in a world where wars, epidemics, global climate crises and economic meltdowns dominate prime time news, woman’s inequality is an issue that the western world widely imagines to have left behind in the twentieth century. WuDunn shows that this is indeed not the case, borrowing Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen’s famous conclusion that “over a hundred million women are missing”.
WuDunn shows conclusively that most of the developing and underdeveloped world still suffers from egregious violations of women’s rights and that in these economies women as a resource is unnoticed and underutilized. She then leads us through thought provoking quotations and amazing real life stories that the best method to tackle poverty in the third world is through investing in women’s education. These stories form the backbone of her discussion, demonstrating clearly through convincing examples that resources invested in this cause leads to overarching effects exceeding it’s primary purpose and spreading out benefits all across the society.
As Sheryl WuDunn eagerly points out – women are not the problem, they are part of the solution. TED videos have become an epitome of perfection and inspiration bringing together people and ideas that span continents, timelines and scientific disciplines. The huge following that these talks have found in the media today is largely spawned by the non technical, approachable language of these discussions. Further, the use of visual media – as in the case of this talk where WuDunn brings us pictures of women from across the world – aids in understanding and creates a greater sense of comprehension and participation among the audience.
Sheryl WuDunn and Nikolas Kristoff have been involved in women’s right movement and in particular, their education since 1988 when they were posted in China as news correspondents. They have since been at the forefront of this movement leading to the establishment of “Half the Sky”, borrowing from a Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky.
This movement works to create greater awareness of the role of gender inequality in today’s society and to channel more resources into the field of women’s education. They work in collaboration with a number of women’s right organizations across the world and as correspondents for the New York Times and writers of several acclaimed books, they have helped in garnering greater recognition for their own efforts and of others towards this noble cause. Wudunn explains the economic benefits of educating women as follows.
In poorer less developed economies men have been the traditional breadwinners. However, it has also been observed that the poor in their societies are trapped in a ‘vicious’ cycle and in many cases an exogenous input of money does not necessarily lead to poverty elimination. WuDunn explains that the poor not only earns less income but also; often have poor spending habits leading to no savings. A major cause for this is that men have been traditionally in charge of spending meaning that most of the money tends to be wasted on drugs, alcohol, prostitution etc.
Further, these families tend to have more members leading to greater clutter and demand for resources. However, educated women tend to be aware of the benefits of having fewer children and have greater influence in controlling their education and general upbringing. Further, when women are the primary breadwinners they tend to be more responsible of their earnings, investing in products that are more valuable to the family and that in the long run leads to their upliftment from poverty. To this extent WuDunn sites former World Bank chief economist Larry Summers - “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world”.
In her talk WuDunn cites several examples where this idea has been shown to work. She takes particular care to bring forth only those examples where the economic upliftment of one woman had led to a general prosperity for those around her. The story of Saima Muhammad from Pakistan in particular is fitting to this paradigm. Married when young, Saima bore her incompetent husband two daughters, both of whom were unwelcome to her mother in law.
Her husband did not earn much and spend his money foolishly, on top of which he beat Saima regularly. Saima was given financial assistance from a micro-lending group in her village with which she bought embroidering materials. Her work soon attracted the attention of the market and to cope with the demand, she hired other woman from her neighborhood, the number rising finally to thirty. What is more interesting is that in order to deliver her goods she hired her own husband who now works for her!
This is a remarkable story that demonstrating how a tiny donation (by western standards) combined with the hard work of a willful woman can have beneficial effects on the whole society. Wudunn’s stories all share the same theme. Be it Pakistan, Somaliland or China, women when entrusted with the necessary resources and guidance can bring in benefits that often extends to entire generations. The last section of her talk focuses on the applicability of aid pointing out that there have been several studies that argue that financial aid to the underdeveloped world especially Africa does not find the necessary benefits.
WuDunn accepts these criticisms but lead us to believe that they are unavoidable mistakes in the path to development and in the absence of any other successful alternative, forms the backbone of the path out of poverty for these societies. She leaves us with a provocative message showing that in the developed rich societies that have already attained a great amount of material prosperity, happiness can only come from helping others and that even if we do not keep the plight of Saima’s around the world as our priority we should still participate in this movement even if it is only for our own happiness.
For as WuDunn so inspiringly points out – Woman hold up half the sky.